In a debate that held the ambiance of a schoolyard confrontation, Mark Sanford fended off mentions of his affair and attacked his opponent as a liberal Democrat before a boisterous crowd at the Citadel Monday night in Charleston, S.C.
Both Sanford and his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, drew loud cheers, boos and groans as topics veered among topics including fiscal restraint, port dredging, gay marriage and abortion.
Colbert Busch came out in favor of gay marriage and abortion rights, while beating back accusations that outside Democratic money will sway her toward liberal policies. In recent days, Sanford has staged mock debates against a cardboard cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at campaign events in the House district he represented in the 1990s and is seeking to reclaim.
“No one tells me what to do except the people of the First District,” she told Sanford twice.
The night’s biggest fireworks came when Sanford’s extramarital affair was brought up, first by Colbert Busch and later, obliquely, by a moderator.
“When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayer, it doesn’t mean you take that money we save and leave the country for a personal purpose,” Colbert Busch said.
Sanford flew to Argentina in 2009 to meet with his then-mistress, now-fiance Maria Belen Chapur, leading aides to believe he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
“I couldn’t hear what she said,” Sanford replied, cupping his hand to his ear. “Repeat it, I didn’t hear that. I’m sorry.”
It was unclear whether Sanford actually hadn’t heard Colbert Busch.
Later, a debate moderator asked Sanford about his votes to impeach President Bill Clinton over his sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky.
“Do you think that President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life based on a mistake that he made in his life?” Sanford asked, seemingly to the audience’s satisfaction.
The candidates exchanged barbs almost as soon as the debate began, as Colbert Busch criticized Sanford for voting against harbor dredging and a new bridge over the port of Charleston, accusing him of opposing measures that would increase trade. Sanford countered that he didn’t oppose the bridge, but rather the method for funding it.
“It must not have bothered her that much, given that she wrote me a $500 check in support of my candidacy” for governor, Sanford said. “I guess it bothers her now.”
“You and I met on a number of occasions,” Colbert Busch said. “You said you would support trade. You said you would support dredging. … And, in fact, you didn’t tell the truth. You turned around and did the opposite.”
Sanford criticized Colbert Busch for her support from national Democrats and labor unions, mentioning Pelosi at least a dozen times to repeated groans from the audience. Running on a platform of fiscal conservatism, Sanford at one point claimed during the debate that he was “against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool.”
While Sanford may have drawn more boos than Colbert Busch, he drew raucous applause, at times, when discussing debt and deficit problems.
In his closing remarks, Sanford asked for everyone’s vote – then joked that such a request might be unrealistic. Sanford instead asked that only some, not all, of the attendees vote for him.
“I get that the room’s divided,” he said.